‘Forensics’ @ The Wellcome Collection



I’ve yet to see a bad exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, and unlike most other shows in London (we now call them ‘shows’ I think, not temporary exhibitions) it’s free of charge. In this case the curators of ‘Forensics’, Lucy Shanahan and Shamita Sharmacharja, are to be congratulated. The gallery has been divided into a number of separate rooms starting with ‘The Crime Scene’, which features a ‘nutshell’ model, dolls’ houses designed to recreate murder scenes in an early form of virtual reality. You can also see the police camera used at Jack the Ripper’s last crime scene and a tiled floor upon which a murder took place. Numerous documents, video interviews and items of photographic evidence are scattered throughout the rooms.

In ‘The Morgue’ we see the development of the mortuary and the autopsy (‘Autopsy’ from ancient Greek, ‘To see with one’s own eyes’). This has a full-sized ceramic body table, video and audio treats (the sound of a real autopsy is particularly horrible) and rare books. In ‘The Laboratory’ we find everything from poison bottles to fingerprinting methods and DNA tracking. There’s also a disturbing kit that measures facial characteristics, reminiscent of the callipers once used to check people for Jewish descent.

‘The Search’ takes us to cold cases, facial reconstruction, forensic anthropology, the investigation of massacres – and you get to stand inside an ice-cold mortuary, part of an art installation – the Wellcome has excelled in adding such installations to its explorations in science and the human body, always remembering the element of imagination that must accompany the study of scientific reason.

In ‘The Courtroom’ we reach the logical end of the search for truth. There’s a section on Crippen which could have been more detailed, but then it has always been the more bizarre elements of that case which have fascinated writers, and we can read about those elsewhere. The final room places wrongly convicted suspects back at the scenes where they established their alibis, an artistic statement that makes a powerful point, perfectly catching the tenor of the exhibition, which looks beyond mere data to ask; what is evidence, where does proof and culpability lie?

It’s another superb Wellcome show, nicely lit, connected at the centre by a dramatic corridor and accompanied as ever by a bookshop that intelligently tailors its stock to the exhibition so perfectly that I defy any writer with a jingling pocket not to buy a book upon exit. The show will be very popular, especially at the weekends, and as there are two headsets per video clip you may have to queue, but it’s worth it and I’ll certainly go again. Sadly I missed Val McDermid’s talk on forensics, but her non-fiction book on the subject is available in the bookstore.

The Wellcome Collection is at 183 Euston Road, London, and the exhibition is on now.

7 comments on “‘Forensics’ @ The Wellcome Collection”

  1. Jo W says:

    One of the places in London I have always wanted to visit,now definitely a must see!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    We walked past it but somehow I couldn’t interest my husband at that point. If we were in London now you’d better believe we’d see this one.

  3. snowy says:

    It’s a bit of a coup to get a ‘Nutshell’ house they are normally not available to the public. And they have a unusual history, conceived and directed by Mrs Frances Glessner Lee.

    The guages sound like they may be a ‘Bertillion’ set, a cumbersome system that was soon overtaken by photography and fingerprints. The techniques were mis-appropriated by the followers of ‘Eugenic Theory’.

  4. Chandon says:

    Very interesting post. I have been a regular visitor to the Wellcome for years, and have always enjoyed it greatly. Not only is it free (which is rare for London) but you always learn something of interest. It reminds me of some of the university-affiliated medical museums in Europe, such as those in Zurich and Berlin. You are right, the bookshop is excellent.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Right, Snowy. I was reading a history of the use of finger prints (or finger marks as Murdock calls them in the mysteries of the same name [why can’t I remember that useful word that means exactly that?]) and the whole question of being able to recognize a suspect by evidence left behind was so useful that the difficulties had to be worked out. It was first tried in India according to the book (no, I don’t remember the title and it was book crossed so I don’t have it) but the difficulty of going through all the finger prints you had to see if you had a copy on file was so onerous it wouldn’t have been surprising if they’d given up.

  6. snowy says:

    Is the word that is just out of reach eponymous?

    *snippy snip*

    ” It was while Sir Edward Henry was Inspector General with the Bengal Police Force in India, that he became aware of the poor illiterate Indian workers when collecting their pay packets, would press a thumbprint on a docket. When he inquired why this was, found out that everyone had a different set of fingerprints, and he then wrote a book expounding the theory. His idea on fingerprints were accepted by the Metropolitan Police, and when he became the Commissioner for Police in London in 1901, The Cental Fingerprint Branch was established.

    By 1902 they had 2000 sets of fingerprints on file, and in 1905 the murderers of Mr and Mrs Farrows were found guilty as their fingerprints matched those that were found in the Farrows shop where the murders took place. Both killers were hanged and this helped set the history of the fingerprint at the forefront of police detection.”


    It might surprise some to learn that machines capable of sorting through a punched card index were in use in the 1890s, developed by Herman Hollerith. [The British distributor of these devices would construct the ‘bombes’ use by Bletchley Park.]

    The machine used to be a cinematic staple for years, it resembled a ‘Hostess trolley’ with a row of pidgeonholes underneath that cards would drop into. There is one in ‘The Long Arm’ [recently discussed on here] and I think there is one in ‘Our Man Flint’, [there are certainly cards used to select the agent ideally suited for the mission, much to the disgust of the spy chief.]

    [But I am doing the topic a disservice, there is somebody we both ‘know’ with a short name starting with ‘J’ that has all the inside knowledge!]

  7. snowy says:

    Such an abrupt segway there!

    Having a large data set does not in itself present a vast problem.

    The Henry Fingerprint Classification System reduces fingerprints to numbers. Once they are just numbers sorting can be done by machines and this is where Hollerith comes in.

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